Did Judas deserve this fate? If Jesus informs you that you will betray him, and tells you to hurry up and do it, are you really responsible for your act?
Furthermore, if your act sets in motion the process—Christ’s Passion—whereby humankind is saved, shouldn’t somebody thank you? No, the Church says. If you betray your friend, you are a sinner, no matter how foreordained or collaterally beneficial your sin. And, if the friend should happen to be the Son of God, so much the worse for you.
For two thousand years, Judas has therefore been Christianity’s primary image of human evil. Now, however, there is an effort to rehabilitate him, the result, partly, of an archeological find. In 1978 or thereabouts, some peasants digging for treasure in a burial cave in Middle Egypt came upon an old codex—that is, not a scroll but what we would call a book, with pages—written in Coptic, the last form of ancient Egyptian. The book has been dated to the third or fourth century, but scholars believe that the four texts it contains are translations of writings, in Greek, from around the second century. When the codex was found, it was reportedly in good condition, but it then underwent a twenty-three-year journey through the notoriously venal antiquities market, where it suffered fantastic abuses, including a prolonged stay in a prospective buyer’s home freezer. (This caused the ink to run when the manuscript thawed.) The book was cracked in half, horizontally; pages were shuffled, torn out. By the time the codex reached the hands of restorers, in 2001, much of it was just a pile of crumbs. The repair job took five years, after which some of the book was still a pile of crumbs. Many passages couldn’t be read.
And then there was the strangeness of what could be read. In the twentieth century, Bible scholars repeatedly had to deal with ancient books—the Dead Sea scrolls, the Nag Hammadi library—that surfaced from the sands of the Middle East to wreak havoc with orthodoxy. These books said that much of what we call Christian doctrine predated Christ; that the universe was created by a female deity, and so on. The 1978 find—called the Codex Tchacos, for one of its successive owners, Frieda Tchacos Nussberger—was even more surprising, because one of its texts, twenty-six pages long, was entitled “The Gospel of Judas.” It wasn’t written by Judas. (We don’t know if there was a historical Judas Iscariot.) It was a story about Judas, and in it the great villain, the Christ-killer, was portrayed as Jesus’ favorite disciple, the only one who understood him.